Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Popular 4th Estate

Critique encouraged, from any angle.

I) Preface: Media Evolution
Medium: A device or channel that the mind utilizes to sense the greater world.

Information. We all have it, gathered in our heads in clumps of brain tissue. We all have our internal thoughts; we all know what it is we perceive. We all have our own realities; what it is our brain makes out of the only media available to the isolated mind: our 5 senses. All animals with the ability to interpret the information coming in via the media of their senses have attained this level of consciousness. All non-social animals possess this level of awareness.

Social animals have gained the ability to not only interpret our senses, but also convey these interpretations to others. Going across channels that stimulate the senses (audibly/visually/kinetically), nonverbal communications have given animals the ability to communicate basic emotional information such as fear, or joy.

Soon, the medium of language joined the 5 senses. At first only spoken, language united communities with its ability to widely disperse concepts more complex than basic emotion. It allowed the basic organization of societal units. Eventually text and basic printing technologies would join, making possible the distribution and preservation of information. This allowed any literate member of society to produce and propagate whatever they wanted.

Soon printing was mechanized; the ability to spread information across larger communities grew, and vast sums of capital were pumped into the media & publication industries. Radio and television have only recently joined the mix. Only those with the capital to control the modes of production were able to harness the potential off mass media. Those with the invested capital controlled the loudest voices - something inherent in a supply/demand economy.

With the Internet, no longer are the channels of mass broadcast open only to those with the means to support a newspaper or broadcast station. No longer are the giants the primary producers of media. Instead we see the birth of a media revolution; everyone with a service provider has equal access to the mass media of the Internet. YouTube. Facebook. Reddit. Flickr. In this new world, everyone’s voice is equally as insignificant when compared to the roar of the crowd.

II) Production/Consumption

Since the introduction of the printed broadsheet in the 1500’s, the newspaper has served as a medium that communities have used to connect to the events in the greater world. They have allowed the individual to get at an account of important happenings, but an inherent flaw in this medium is that (like radio and TV) printed paper is only able to carry the flow of information one direction.

The relationship between the media industry and the community was that of a supply/demand economic relationship. The news industry would spend its capital to produce the majority of the news, and the community would spend its capital to consume it. Being the primary producers of news, editors and writers compiled and organized information according to what they have defined as being most newsworthy via the inverted pyramid style, and once the news was assembled the information was passed to the community via publication (later broadcast).

Currently almost every news source’s online presence is, in essence, exactly the same. They are all extrapolations of simplex principles that have served the print industries well for centuries: the content is nearly entirely generated by the paper’s staff or affiliates and the stories are organized and presented hierarchically by their editors. The newspaper business was reliant on having a community that demanded a supply of what their publishers/editors considered to be news.

The Internet itself, however, has made this simplex model of media transmission defunct. The giants of the pre-digital era’s 4th Estate now struggle to keep their paper subscriptions, and near universal access to an endless list of independent international news sources has crippled their attempts to create an online, subscription based business model.

With the intricate networks of international connections brought on by the digital era, the 4th Estate can no longer embrace the idea that it is solely the role of the Journalist be the sole producer of ‘relevant’ news or bring opinion to the public’s attention - particularly in a democratic society where all voices are considered to be equal. With the advent of the Internet and social networking technologies, the roll of the 4th Estate will transition from being the community’s provider of relevant information to being the community’s facilitator of relevant discussion.

III) Social News

The news industry has in recent years seen the emergence of social news sites such as, Google News and The content of the largest of these social news sites, Reddit, is entirely user generated. While none of the actual content is hosted on Reddit’s website, users post hyperlinks to things that they think the greater community would enjoy exposure to. This can range from groundbreaking world news (provided normally by a linking to traditional news organizations’ websites) to cute pictures of cats.

The process of producing Reddit’s front page is encompassingly social in nature; users vote for which posts they appreciate the most, and those with the most votes make it to the front page. Each submission has it’s own page for the community to discuss the content, and every individual comment is ranked in the same manner as the stories.

A number of sub-forums divide up the overall discussion on Reddit. At time of writing, the most popular sub-forums discuss things like: a Pictures section, World News, Politics, Gaming, a “Funny” section, Cannabis Legalization, a section where users share things they’ve recently learned that they have found interesting or relevant to their lives, and an “IAMA” section. “IAMA” means that the original creator of the discussion begins with saying that “I AM A congressman/electrician/ illegal immigrant/hypnotist/millionaire/physicist/janitor. Please ask me whatever you would like to know about my opinions or profession.”

I believe it is of note that in these early stages of integrating the Internet into our species’ existence, other socially connecting technologies such as Facebook and Twitter have given both communities and individuals the ability to communicate and form social movements so significant as the recent revolutions in Egypt and the Middle East.

The newsstand is a place where people gather together to connect to news of the greater world. The Internet is a place where people gather together to connect to each other. The digital news sites of the future will be a place for people to do both.

IV) The Digital Democracy

While the need for the presentation and distribution of journalistic work in the hierarchical, simplex formats established by print industries has been made defunct, the demand for a “neutral” voice will continue to keep the traditional journalistic occupational practices of gathering and assembling individual stories relevant. Embracing the ability to interact directly with the readership, the Journalist will be able to utilize feedback from the community to judge the relevancy of potential news against. With this, the journalist will be more fully capable of providing a relevant core of “neutral” information around which discussion of events and issues is facilitated.

It has been established that the opinion of the people is one of the strongest forces to contend with in the grand experiment that is democracy. One of the core concepts regarding the 4th Estate has been, at least in the American democratic society, to bring to people the information they need to sustain a healthy and informed democracy. Without the Internet, the few old giants of media production controlled the loudest voices in the discussion. With the Internet, the Journalist is only one voice in a billion. The only two tools the Journalist will have are their ability to gauge potential newsworthiness against the public feedback and their ability to gather that potential news. The once vague perceptions of the 4th Estate’s interactions with the public will be more capable of manifesting through the Journalist’s tool of direct interaction within the digital community.

Regardless of whether the Journalist’s contributions to the discussions are presented on par with the community’s, the public should have an equal place to decide for themselves what the news is, much like the model presented by social news sites such as Reddit. No longer would the journalistic web presence be viewed as a single-point source of news information. The site would instead be viewed as the center of relevant discussion amongst the community. It would be a place to gather and learn about what the rest of humanity was up to that day – in both news and opinion. Via this extension of the 4th Estate into the digital era, journalistic practices embracing neutral and relevant reportage will be combined with the facilitation of public discourse to create a more immersive democratic society.

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